Recently, I had the opportunity to meet the family behind Gillian’s Foods and see where their tasty pantry staples and baked goods are produced. Available all over Massachusetts, the United States and even internationally, I was expecting to pull up to a large, intimidating factory. I was pleasantly surprised to find Gillian’s Foods is located in a family neighborhood, across from a park. They occupy a large section of a small commercial building.
Having not interviewed anyone since high school Model U.N., I was a little apprehensive, but immediately relaxed a little upon meeting Gillian: she is affable with a bright smile and a passion for the family business. Chef Bob, Gillian’s father, comes in and out of the room, sharing insights as he continues to manage the operations in the bakery.
I sat down with Gillian to hear a little about this company.
Q: How did Gillian’s Foods get its start?
A: Gillian’s started 16 years ago, after I was diagnosed with Celiac at age 6. Unsatisfied with the replacement gluten-free products available on the market place at that time, Chef Bob (a/k/a dad) set out to create better gluten-free bread.
Chef Bob experimented in his home kitchen developing recipes and worked with Children’s Hospital Boston to bring those recipes to taste test at their celiac support groups.
Q: Did Chef Bob embark upon his quest for better gluten-free products with a company in mind?
A: We wanted to bring tasty gluten-free products to the market. 16 years ago, when we first started, the options were extremely limited. We started as a mail order business and it grew from there. With the increased awareness of gluten-free diets, our products are available in stores, restaurants and of course, online.
Um, I kind of want a pneumatic pump to fill baking tins!
Q: Your website mentions Chef Bob got his start in the restaurant business, what is his background like?
A: Chef Bob is a trained chef, who has worked in a number of Boston restaurants, specializing in Italian, classic American and seafood.
Q:Gluten-free products are a lot more visible now than they were even two years ago. How has that affected your business? Have you experienced growth despite the recession?
A: Despite the recession, we are still growing. Stores are always reviewing their sales to determine which products continue to appeal to consumers. Gluten-free is popular: the market is growing. Stores will give you a chance as long as you meet their guidelines for everyday low pricing. Consumer affordability is very important.
Q:How do you decide what products to make?
A: We started out with the main products for a house, the things a family keeps stocked in their pantry: pasta, breadcrumbs, croutons, and breads. Once we had the basics down, we started branching out.
Our newest products are pies, cakes and cookie dough.
Our customers are important to us: we really try to listen to customer feedback to improve our products and come up with ideas for new products. We are dedicated to helping our customers.
Next on the list, we are in the research and development process for cookies and whoopee pies, which would be packaged and sold individually in vending machines. We are hoping to get those onto to college campus.
We are also looking into developing a stuffing.
Look at those mixers!
Q: What is the process for coming up with a new product?
A: It starts with an idea. Once we have the idea, we check the market, to see which, if any companies are making such a product. We also look for consumer feedback.
The next phase is research and development. We develop and test various versions. When we were working on our new chocolate cake, we wanted it to be less crumbly, so we worked with a baker from Johnson & Wales to get the product just right.
After that, a nutritional analysis is performed on the product. Packaging and labeling materials are developed and then finally, the product goes to markets.
It takes anywhere from 1-2 years for a new product to hit the marketplace.
Q: What advice do you have for gluten-free bakers at home?
A: Baking is a science, not an art. Use scales instead of measuring cups for accuracy. Use the recipe, not your heart.
Q: Where can someone find your products?
A: Gillian’s products are always available on our website and are stocked at a lot of grocery stores, including Shaw’s and Whole Foods. Our products are also used in the gluten-free menu of Not Your Average Joe’s, the Ninety Nine restaurants, Legal Seafoods and Burton’s Grill.
Q: Any tips for the family of a person recently diagnosed with celiac?
A: It’s not the end of the world; it’s a healthier way of eating.
Be open: try everything.
Gluten-free products are never going to be like wheat, they are made with rice.
Q: Any places you like to eat?
A: Well, there is still a fair amount of ignorance out there about food allergies, but that is changing. The Danvers House of Pizza now has a really good gluten-free pizza crust.
Gillian also showed me around their facility. As you may be able to see from the pictures, it’s immaculate. The bakery area was spotless. Even the refrigerators were neatly and clearly labeled to avoid any cross-contamination.
Those ovens look like walk-in freezers.
As I left, Gillian gave me a product still in the research and development stage: chocolate whoopee pie. The cake is the same recipe as their new chocolate cakes. I brought the whoopee pie home and split it with my husband. I immediately regretted that decision, as it meant that I had less whoopee pie. I almost reached over and grabbed the other half out of his hand.
The cake was so good. It was not overly sweet and the rich chocolate-y taste of the cake was well-balanced by the sweet vanilla icing in the middle. I cannot wait until these become available on the market. I hope they will sell them on their website and not just in vending machines.